In this article I will talk about how to ‘set dress’ your garden to create beautiful natural images of garden birds. If you would like to learn more about bird photography why not join me on my 4 Week Online Bird Photography Course.
Choice of perch is important as this will be an aesthetic addition to your image. An ugly inappropriate perch and the shot won’t look good however good a pose your bird is in. I don’t rely on nature, but spend time looking for good perches that i can artificially set up in my garden near my feeders. I aim to place perches that are appropriate to the subject. So for example in this image of a gold finch, he is perched on a seed head that is quite dainty and does not look too big.
In this image of a Jay on a branch (see above), the perch is much more appropriate for the size of the bird. A gold finch would look OK on a bigger perch like this, but it would not work as well as the previous picture. I like to keep my perches fairly simple and they need to be fairly uncluttered to ensure birds readily land on them, and by that I mean not too many leaves or thorns for example. You will need to experiment with this a bit and you will soon see how individual birds when arriving at the feeder use the same bit of your perch. If they are avoiding it altogether then something is wrong and you might need to change it.
Attaching a perch can be an art in itself. For an upright perch you can use a cane and tape the perch to the top. If wanting it horizontal try using clips and brackets as shown in this example here. Garden centres are great places to wander round and find useful props. You need to ensure when photographing birds on your perch that none of the peripheral stuff used to hold it in place is showing in the picture. Of course you can simply place food near growing plants, you might have an apple tree or other suitable bush or tree.
Be seasonal with your perch. In autumn experiment with autumn leaves. In winter a sprig of holly for a Robin or that clichéd shot of a Robin on a fork handle are all worth trying. In early spring try catkins or blossom, apple blossom in particular can really set a picture off.
Once your perch is chosen it needs to be placed in a position to lure birds on to it. Your garden birds will tend to like to loiter in a bit of cover before flying to the feeder so placing your perch close to your feeder, just a few inches away but in line with the favoured bush or tree from which most fly will ensure they meet your perch first, as in this photo here. You can place a perch over a low bird table so they hop on to this before going on to the bird table. again experiment moving it around to see what works best for your given situation.
When your bird is perched think about how you will compose the image. It is often desirable to have your subject off centre. If placed in the middle of the frame if the bird is looking to the left for example your eye will be drawn to the space the bird is looking in to. Therefore the space on the right will be dead space. Here is a picture shot in this way.
Now of course you can recompose by cropping in the computer which is what I have done here. This image feels better balanced and is far more interesting. I have composed the crop so the subject is off centre and looking into space. Of course rules are there to be broken and this is just one compositional technique so experiment yourself with placing the bird in different parts of the frame.
In this image I have used a garden tool a fork as my perch. Robins find mealworms irresistible and so I placed a small container full of them just below the fork. Each time the Robin visited the food he landed on the handle. I’ve turned the camera round and shot this vertically for a more pleasing composition. The bonus in this shot is the snow.
Snow adds an extra dimension to winter bird photography and can be used to great effect in making what might be an ordinary picture really stand out. If you know snow is coming then leave out in situ suitable perches so they get covered naturally. The snow acts like a giant reflector too illuminating birds plumage allowing feather detail to show up really well. Once the ground is covered birds such as thrushes find it tough to feed and so resort more to visiting trees and bushes laden with berries. This Blackbird was photographed during a period of heavy falling snow on a bush full of berries. I have placed the bird on the extreme right of the picture as he was looking to the left into space and I wanted to help illustrate the the snow covered branch and berries.
Here we have another shot of a Blackbird this time on a frost covered lawn. For this image I wanted to illustrate the fact the bird was in a garden. So I baited with some apples and placed this watering can near and behind the food. I was then able to photograph the bird with the watering can out of focus but clearly visible so giving a sense of the garden environment.
As with the Blackbird I’ve got down low to take this next image. If you can get on the birds level so in this case I was lying on the ground then the resulting image can give a far more intimate feel. You are at the birds level and the picture reflects this. If I had stood up and shot this image, there would have been a more detached feel to the picture. I photographed this Robin to give a feel I was in the grass with him. Note I have used a very shallow depth of field of f 4 in this image to throw out of focus the grass in the foreground and background. A larger depth of field would have created partly in focus grass that may have drawn the eye away from our main subject.
I have talked of attracting birds to your garden with food but the other vital need of a bird is water. A bird bath, an upturned dustbin lid is ideal, should attract plenty of visitors throughout the year. When bathing and drinking small birds are vulnerable to predators such as cats or a marauding Sparrow hawk so if you place your bath near cover it is likely to be more popular. You can place a nice perch near the bath as one way of photographing them but because a bird bathing is a dynamic event full of photographic potential you might want to set up a drinking pool that is photogenic.
By digging a shallow hole in the ground and lining it with pond liner or indeed sinking a dustbin lid into the ground you can then build a set that resembles a natural woodland pool. Ensure the liner or receptacle you are using becomes covered around its edge by soil then you can dress the sides perhaps with some moss a log or two, leaves, you get the idea, you want to make it look as natural as possible. I enjoy capturing reflections as here in this image. Such a setup can allow you to experiment with composition and make some really eye catching images.
When birds come to bathe water flies. You might want to freeze the action and for that you will need a shutter speed of at least 1/1000 sec. This Blackbird shaking his head was shot at 1/1250 sec and you can see in the image the water drops are not completely frozen even at this speed. Try shooting slow shutter speeds too for more abstract dreamy looking shots, its good to experiment. Note too in this image how I have framed the bird. You don’t always need the whole bird in the picture, I wanted emphasize the bathing and the water so I have made this the image and not worried about including the Blackbirds body, if I had done so the impact might have been lost.